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Awards Daily Interview: The Coen Brothers’ True Grit

Craig Kennedy discusses True Grit
and prior business with the Coen Brothers

In many ways, Joel and Ethan Coen are responsible for me being a little bit crazy about movies. I was a late bloomer when it comes to movie fandom. I didn’t live and breathe movies when I was a little kid like many of the other movie freaks I know, rather I caught the bug late in high school. At that time I fell in love with the filmmakers who were already established as great: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Hawks, Ford, and you can pretty much fill in the names yourself from there. They are received wisdom. I liked these directors at first because I knew I was supposed to like them.

Then in 1987 I discovered Raising Arizona and the Coen Brothers. Blood Simple came first of course, but I only saw that delightful bit of neo-noir sometime after I’d lost my Coen cherry with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as an unlikely couple who will do anything to start their own family. This was before “Coenesque” was an adjective. No one told me I had to like them. I found them all by myself and they represent the point at which I was transformed from a movie consumer into a movie lover.

The point is, the Coens are a very big deal to me personally so you might imagine the mixture of thrill and fear I felt when Sasha asked me if I wanted to interview them. Talking to them has always been a wish of mine, but the problem is they’re not exactly known for being an easy interview. They don’t appear to be comfortable talking about themselves and seem to prefer that the work speak for itself. Was I setting myself up to realize my biggest dream only to have it turn into my worst nightmare? Absolutely, but I also knew I’d regret it forever if I didn’t do it.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Comfortably ensconced in their suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills as assorted publicists and manager types shuffled this or that buffet-gorged journalist from one room to the next like worker bees in a gigantic publicity hive, the brothers were relaxed and gracious and very easy to talk to. I wouldn’t say they were exactly chatty, but they weren’t aloof either. In fact I was a little surprised at how quick to laughter they were. It makes sense since their movies are often so funny, but somehow they always struck me as being more serious. They’re thoughtful to be sure and a bit cerebral, but you can also picture them in a room together hammering out one of their screenplays and just making each other laugh.

I probably had 20 years worth of questions saved up to ask them, but I had limited time and I really wanted to keep the spotlight on the movie of the moment: True Grit. It’s easily their most mainstream film, yet it never feels like a compromise or a sell out. While it remains true to its source material, it’s still very much a Coen film. It’s light and entertaining, but it’s also layered and has a deeper resonance if you choose to dig a little bit. However, the very idea of making this film has raised more than a few eyebrows and I wanted to address that mini-controversy right from the start of the conversation.

Awards Daily: When you announced that your next project would be an adaptation of True Grit, it seemed like an odd choice. You’d already made a kind of western in No Country for Old Men, but True Grit is something altogether more old-fashioned. It doesn’t automatically feel like Coenesque material. It almost feels like a departure.

Ethan Coen: It didn’t seem like a departure to us. Well actually we don’t think about our movies one relative to the other or all of them relative to the next one. It just came from an enthusiasm for [Charles Portis'] book, you know, it was a book we both read and really liked. That’s not only the short answer it’s the complete answer. We liked the book.

AD: Well, I think most people approach the story having only a familiarity with Henry Hathaway’s film adaptation starring John Wayne‚Ķ

Joel Coen: I think that makes sense. We’d both seen the movie, but probably when it first came out in 1969 and not since, so our recollection of it is pretty dim. I think if that’s what you were sort of initially expecting – “Oh, they’re going to remake this movie” – it might seem a little bit strange. We saw the trailer for it recently. That was kind of interesting. But yeah, the book is the book. You know, the book is something else.

AD: Did you feel any trepidation in approaching this iconic story that won John Wayne an Academy Award?

EC: No.

JC: Not really. It’s sort of interesting. It’s like, for people from our generation and older, the movie does have this sort of iconic status, but if you get a little bit younger – more into the actual demographic of the book – it’s surprising how many people don’t know it. Even just a little bit younger than us, lots of people go “oh yeah, I know the title but what is that again?”

AD: Lot’s of people only know it by reputation.

JC: Yeah.

EC: Older people might resist the idea more as they have that emotional connection to John Wayne which people in that younger demographic don’t any more.

JC. Especially when you get into kids my son’s age [Pedro, adopted from Paraguay in 1994 by Joel and his wife Frances McDormand] or something like that, they’re not familiar with John Wayne at all.

AD: Up until No Country for Old Men in 2007 – well actually I guess you could go back to Intolerable Cruelty in 2003 which began as a script written by another writer or 2004’s Ladykillers which was a remake – but before that your films always came from your own original ideas and scripts. Here you are again though with a straight adaptation. Can you talk a little bit about how the process is different?

JC: Once it’s done, the screenplay is the screenplay in terms of how we approach making it into a movie.

AD: But what about the process of writing itself?

EC: Well that’s a little bit different because you‚Äôve been spotted quite a bit of the work (Laughs).

AD: Does that make it easier or is it more limiting in some ways?

EC: It makes it mostly easier but harder in certain weird ways. You go, “Ok this won’t work so well as a movie however well it worked as a book, but we’ve got to get from A to B so how do we‚Ķ?”

JC: ‚Ķor it’s a really great thing in the book and I want to kind of convey that somehow, but I can’t do it the same way they did it in the book. You might have to change something radically in order to get the same idea across.

AD: With True Grit, you actually didn’t have to change very much from the novel, though there is that sequence at night outside the shelter where Rooster and Mattie confront Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang for the first time. You changed some things around there and there’s some comedy that comes from La Boeuf biting his tongue which wasn’t in the book.

JC: Well, they don’t split up [from La Boeuf] in the book. We had the idea of it being more dramatically interesting if they split up and there is time where you’re just with Mattie and Rooster. Also, from a story point of view, it’s more interesting and dramatic and suspenseful if La Boeuf shows up in the middle of that confrontation when they’re waiting for the bad guys to come back and it’s sort of the confounding factor in how that unfolds.

EC: So his getting shot and biting his own tongue flowed from that.

JC: So yeah those little things that you’re, again, thinking about more from the point of a view of a movie and how it’s going to unfold visually as opposed to on the page. I think it works great in the book, but it was one of those places where you went “this could be maybe better in the context of a movie.”

AD: A little more cinematic.

JC: Yeah.

AD: Among other things, you guys are known for a certain brand of dialogue that tends to be stylized rather than naturalistic. It’s not necessarily how people really talk. Is it hard finding actors who can pull that off?

JC: Yeah.

EC: Yes. I can think of a lot of actors who you wouldn’t ask. Nameless actors. Not even that it’s a negative or a liability necessarily, but yeah, some actors‚Ķ

JC: …some actors find it more naturally.

EC: Jeff [Bridges] was immediately interested by the nature of the language.

AD: Just reading it on the page?

EC: Yeah

JC: And reading the book.

AD: What is it about that style of dialogue that interests you?

EC: With any dialogue, that’s how you get to the characters and how you get to the world that they’re in. It’s part of the whole context. Especially in this book. I mean the book is told as first person narration by the main character and how she tells the story is part of what makes it so compelling and part of what’s funny about it

AD: I’m glad you brought up the humor in True Grit. I laughed a lot and so did the audience I saw it with, but‚Ķwell, do you read your own reviews?

EC: Oh, I read a lot of them.

JC: Some, not all.

AD: Well, one noted critic who isn’t the film’s biggest fan (Todd McCarthy for those of you keeping score at home) wrote that you “oddly decided to drain most of the comedy from inherently funny lines and situations.” I understand a person liking or not liking a certain movie, but how do you miss the humor?

EC and JC: (laugh)

JC: That’s very funny actually. It’s something you absolutely can’t argue. If you didn’t find it funny, you’re right! (laughs)

AD: To be fair I suppose your humor can be hard to explain. It’s not a series of set-ups and punch lines. The humor comes from the characters and the way they talk and the things they say.

JC: Yeah.

EC: People’s reactions are interesting. I remember a review of Blood Simple where the critic talked about unintentional laughter – it was a pan and he was saying, you know, the movie was so bad that people were laughing in unexpected places. To him it was unexpected because they were laughing at things that he didn’t find funny.

JC: Exactly (laughs). There’s also a funny thing about being allowed permission to laugh. Again with Blood Simple I remember there were a couple of screenings in New York. The first one was very quiet and then Janet Maslin or someone wrote a review in the New York Times where she called the movie a black comedy. It played in the same venue the next day and everyone was laughing. They were given permission.

AD: Do you think about your movies in terms of them being comedies or dramas? Do you fit them into the context of strict genres?

JC: Less than reviewers of course or movie marketing people who very much want to put them in one slot or another for understandable reasons.

EC: Genre is always a big deal with writer/journalists. But you know‚Ķ I guess inarguably [True Grit] is a western but it kind of is and is not. I mean the book‚Ķ is it or isn’t it? It’s not a Zane Grey story, you know, that’s a western.

AD: Well, True Grit is also a family film in a lot of ways.

JC: I was going to say, in our own thinking, it fits more comfortably into another sort of envelope. Part of what was so compelling to us about the novel is that you’d almost call it young adult adventure fiction. It has that element which is very strong. It seems to be stamped more strongly with that than the western genre to me in many ways.

AD: My time is almost up, but can you talk about how you found Hailee Steinfeld? She’s amazing. The whole film depends on her character Mattie Ross and if you cast that character wrong‚Ķ

EC: Yes. You’re totally screwed. Yes. We were well aware that if we got that wrong we were totally screwed.

JC: And she was cast late. If it was more than a month before we started shooting, it couldn’t have been much more. It’s funny because casting people looked all over the country at thousands of other girls and we ended up casting this girl who was from Thousand Oaks, California – basically from L.A.

EC: (Laughs) We actually thought about not casting her just because otherwise it meant we were wasting the time and hard work of all these casting directors…

JC: (Laughs).

AD: You must’ve had a chance to test Hailee with Jeff because they have that amazing chemistry.

EC: Yes.

JC: In the room together, but not tested on film.

EC: Yes. We’d seen an audition tape so we knew she was serious and that she was really good so we brought her in with Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned) and Dakin Matthews who plays Colonel Stonehill. She read scenes with each of them and she was great.

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At this point I was just getting warmed up and I think I could’ve gone on asking the Coens questions all day, but there were lots of other journalists nipping at my heels and my time was up. I especially wanted to talk more about Hailee because she really is fantastic and she deserves every bit of the attention she’s getting, but that will have to wait for another day.

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Craig Kennedy is the editor of Living in Cinema.

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